Doctor’s orders – The past, present and future of Paul McGann’s Doctor

Image Credit: James Ashworth

Image Description: The Eighth Doctor’s outfit

By James Ashworth

With Daphne Ashbrook having taken to the stage to discuss her career, it was time for the Doctor to materialise for his moment at the convention. Despite being born in 1959, Paul McGann’s talk embodied the spirit of the Doctor, taking in events from 1912 all the way through to the present day.

Before the talk itself, Paul sat in on a viewing of the 60’s edition of The Doctor Who Years, being particularly enamoured with the Voord when they made their appearance. Growing up during the decade, one of his early memories is heading to see Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. alongside his family. Perhaps this film helped to inspire the McGann brothers into acting some years later, though Paul said that their dad had to be “won around” first. His father Joseph, a metals scientist, came from a family of Liverpool industrial workers, with Paul mentioning how his great uncle, Jimmy, had been a boiler scaler – someone who removes lime deposits – on board the Titanic. Jimmy was one of the last to escape the ship, leaving on the final, capsized, lifeboat, and may also have been one of the last to see the Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith, alive. On board, the crew were ordered to stand on the hull, swaying in unison to counteract the sea’s conditions, which led many to develop frostbite as the boat sank lower into the water. After being rescued,  Jimmy would subsequently testify at the inquest into the Titanic’s fate, with Paul later appearing in a dramatisation of the events which took place. 

Having convinced his family, Paul would subsequently audition, and be accepted, into RADA, being the first of his brothers to train in acting. However, he wasn’t the first to be a professional, with his youngest brother Stephen, better known as Dr Turner in Call the Midwife, getting into showbusiness ahead of him. Paul would eventually become a professional following the end of term RADA showcase, allowing him to gain a provisional Equity card. At the time, Equity was a ‘closed shop’ union, with a limited number of spaces, and most acting jobs at the time only open to those who were members.

“It was an old racket,” said Paul, “on behalf of old hams who were trying to tie up the West End for themselves.” In his case, it saw him awarded a provisional card by Tony Craven at the then Basingstoke Horseshoe Theatre, with Paul having to act in a number of productions to build up sufficient experience to gain a full card. With his other brothers, Joe and Mark, joining the acting profession in the following years, Paul says that they were “fairly interchangeable,” and able to stand in for one another in the early days. 

As their careers developed, Paul would move into television, with appearances in Give us a Break and The Monocled Mutineer, before film appearances in Withnail and I and Empire of the Sun. Fast forward to the 1990s, and Paul began to hear rumours of a potential Doctor Who reboot. These subsequently “became concrete,” with auditions coming shortly afterwards. “i thought I was there to make up the numbers,” he said, saying that he thought “until the last moment” that one of the big names touted in connection with the role would have the part. So shocked was he at being given the part he said that he “tried to back away,” but was convinced by Philip Segal to take up the part after being asked to imagine the direction the character could take. However, this direction for the character didn’t extend to the costume, which Paul says he wanted to be something closer to Christopher Eccleston’s outfit, but he ended up being overruled. 

With the TV Movie not leading to a future series, Paul’s thoughts for the character lay dormant for a while, until he was invited back to the part for Big Finish’s ongoing series. He said that the recording site for the early audios in Bristol was a “beautiful space” for recording, with an “old fashioned radio style” to it. Indeed, the site at Christchurch Studios lived a former life as a BBC recording studio before being bought by the city’s Old Vic theatre. He enjoyed performing alongside the “proper swanky casts” Big Finish assembled, with one of those being India Fisher, who joined McGann on stage.

“It was a massive deal for me,” she said. India said that the experience “felt like being in a theatre company,” especially the trips to the Coronation Tap pub nearby. She said that her uncertainty at Charley’s fate meant she would look to the back of the script when she received it to see if she would die before reading the rest. Highlights of her time as McGann’s companion include the two-hander Scherzo, where she “loved the whole experience,” being face to face with McGann in the recording studio to enhance the emotion of their scenes. On the other hand, India says that getting into character had its issues when it came to Neverland, saying that she was ribbed by the staff after finding she could only perform Charley’s doppelganger by placing her hands on her hips to channel the required disapproval. 

Though Big Finish still continues, 2013 saw McGann return to our screens as the Doctor in The Night of the Doctor, which he said he was “knocked over” by. After being invited to film his regeneration, there was one initial hurdle – having to pretend he wasn’t doing anything to the other Doctors! “I got away with it,” he said, “as Tom Baker’s lie was even bigger!”

When it came to the filming itself, Paul was finally able to influence his costume, with the parts being hired from Angel’s Costumes in London.” I wanted him to look as if he had a fight in him,” he said. “Why does the Doctor need a costume?” 

Once the costume was fitted, it took just over a day to film The Night of the Doctor itself, with Paul being taken in a blacked out car to the hotel in Cardiff, where he was under the name of… Mr Smith. The filming took place just after the wrap party for The Day of the Doctor, with Paul being handed bits of paper by Steven Moffat about the performance. “It was a work of genius on Moffat’s part,” he said. “A tour de force. It works better sometimes when it’s a short, character-driven piece.” 

Short, character-driven drama is perhaps a good way to sum up Paul’s era as a whole. It may have taken many years, multiple media, and some damn fine acting, but there can be no doubt amongst fans that Paul has firmly taken his place amongst the pantheon of Doctors. And it seems, that having filmed his regeneration scene, McGann now feels like a “bona fide” Doctor too.

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